Da Vinci's Ghost
Genius, Obsession, and How Leonardo Created the World in His Own Image
By Toby Lester
(Free Press, Hardcover, 9781439189238, 304pp.)
Publication Date: February 7, 2012
EVERYONE KNOWSTHE IMAGE. NO ONE KNOWS ITS STORY.
This is the story of Vitruvian Man: Leonardo da Vinci’s famous drawing of a man in a circle and a square. Deployed today to celebrate subjects as various as the nature of genius, the beauty of the human form, and the universality of the human spirit, the figure appears on everything from coffee cups and T-shirts to book covers and corporate logos. In short, it has become the world’s most famous cultural icon, yet almost nobody knows anything about it.
Leonardo didn’t summon Vitruvian Man out of thin air. He was playing with the idea, set down by the Roman architect Vitruvius, that the human body could be made to fit inside a circle, long associated with the divine, and a square, related to the earthly and secular. To place a man inside those shapes was therefore to imply that the human body was the world in miniature. This idea, known as the theory of the microcosm, was the engine that had powered Western religious and scientific thought for centuries, and Leonardo hitched himself to it in no uncertain terms. Yet starting in the 1480s he set out to do something unprecedented. If the design of the body truly did reflect that of the cosmos, he reasoned, then by studying its proportions and anatomy more thoroughly than had ever been done before—by peering deep into both body and soul—he might broaden the scope of his art to include the broadest of metaphysical horizons. He might, in other words, obtain an almost godlike perspective on the makeup of the world as a whole.
Vitruvian Man gives that exhilarating idea visual expression. In telling its story, Toby Lester weaves together a century-spanning saga of people and ideas. Assembled here is an eclectic cast of fascinating characters: the architect Vitruvius; the emperor Caesar Augustus and his “body of empire”; early Christian and Muslim thinkers; the visionary mystic Hildegard of Bingen; the book-hunter Poggio Bracciolini; the famous dome-builder Filippo Brunelleschi; Renaissance anatomists, architects, art theorists, doctors, and military engineers; and, of course, in the starring role, Leonardo himself—whose ghost Lester resurrects in the surprisingly unfamiliar context of his own times.
Da Vinci’s Ghost is written with the same narrative flair and intellectual sweep as Lester’s award-winning first book, the “almost unbearably thrilling” (Simon Winchester) Fourth Part of the World. Like Vitruvian Man itself, the book captures a pivotal time in the history of Western thought when the Middle Ages was giving way to the Renaissance, when art and science and philosophy all seemed to be converging as one, and when it seemed just possible, at least to Leonardo da Vinci, that a single human being might embody—and even understand—the nature of everything.
Toby Lester is a contributing editor to and has written extensively for The Atlantic. A former Peace Corps volunteer and United Nations observer, he lives in the Boston area with his wife and three daughters. His previous book, The Fourth Part of the World (2009), about the map that gave America its name, was a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers Award and was picked as a Book of the Year by several other publications. His work has also appeared on the radio program This American Life.
Most people are familiar with Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man: A nude man, with his arms and legs outstretched, inside a square within a circle. In his book Da Vinci's Ghost, author Toby Lester tells the story of da Vinci's quest to create an image of the perfectly proportioned human. More at NPR.org
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"Every once in a while that rare book comes along that is not only wonderfully written and utterly compelling but also alters the way you perceive the world. Toby Lester’s “Da Vinci's Ghost” is such a book. Like a detective, Lester uncovers the secrets of an iconic drawing and pieces together a magisterial history of art and ideas and beauty."—David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z
"In reconstructing the forgotten story of Vitruvian Man, Toby Lester, a canny decoder of images and a great storyteller, sheds new light on the enigmatic Leonardo DaVinci."—Chris Anderson, Editor in Chief of Wired, author of The Long Tail and Free
"Erudite, elegant, enthralling. This is a wonderful book. Toby Lester understands, and makes us understand, the unique intensity with which Leonardo saw the world. He saw it not only in its infinite diversity but also as an impression of his own self, an explanation of what it means to be human. Hence Vitruvian Man."—Sister Wendy Beckett, author of The Story of Painting
“Da Vinci’s Ghost is both a beautiful and a brilliant book. After reading Lester’s account, you will never be able to look at Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man the same way again.”—Howard Markel, author of An Anatomy of Addiction
“Da Vinci’s Ghost is as ingeniously crafted as one of its namesake’s famous inventions. Like Leonardo himself, Toby Lester can take a single sheet of paper—in this case, the most famous drawing in all of art history—and make it teem with stories, characters, insights, and ideas.”—Adam Goodheart, author of 1861: The Civil War Awakening
“Like almost everyone, I've seen Leonardo's drawing of the nude man in the circle. But until I read Toby Lester's terrific new book, I had no idea about the story behind the picture—or even that there *was* a story behind the picture. Deftly weaving together art, architecture, history, theology and much else, Da Vinci's Ghost is a first-rate intellectual enchantment.”—Charles Mann, author of 1493
"Like Da Vinci's famous drawing, Toby Lester's book is a small wonder—a work of brilliant compression that illuminates a whole world of life and thought. Lester proves himself to be the perfect guide to the Renaissance and beyond—affable, knowledgeable, funny. Leonardo's Virtruvian Man turns out to be a road map that can take us to remarkable places—once you learn how to read it."—Cullen Murphy, editor at large, Vanity Fair
“One of the great contributions of books like this is to keep the reader from taking for granted a familiar object. Lester’s detective story has a satisfying number of insights…covers a broad swath of history…[and] braids intellectual threads—philosophy, anatomy, architecture, and art—together in a way that reaffirms not only Leonardo’s genius but also re-establishes the significance of historical context in understanding great works of art.”—Publishers Weekly, STARRED Review
Praise for Toby Lester's Fourth Part of the World
“Marvelously imaginative, exhaustively researched. . . . Guiding the reader Virgil-like through the Age of Discovery, Lester introduces a chronologically and conceptually vast array of Great Men (Columbus, Vespucci, Polo, Copernicus, et al.), competing theories, monastic sages, forgotten poets, opportunistic merchants, unfortunate slaves, and more. That he relates it all so cleanly and cogently—via elegant prose, relaxed erudition, measured pacing, and purposeful architecture—is a feat. That he proffers plentiful visual delights, including detailed views of the legendary document, is a gift. This map, Lester writes, ‘draws you in, reveals itself in stages, and doesn’t let go.’ Nor does this splendid volume.”—The Atlantic
“An intellectual detective story. By using the [Waldseemüller] map as a lens through which to view a nexus of myth, imagination, technology, stupidity, and imperial ambition, Lester has penned a provocative, disarming testament to human ambition and ingenuity.”—The Boston Globe